A Coherent Energy Policy: Nuclear Energy, part 1

One of the most cost effective (once actually built) sources of energy production and one that releases 1% of the greenhouse gases as a coal plant (if that is your concern) is nuclear energy. Its unfortunate that those who wail about global warming will likewise wail against nuclear energy. This illustrates the hypocrisy and stupidity of their beliefs.

Today, we get 20% of our energy needs from 104 nuclear plants. Compare that with 44% of our needs being provided by over 1500 coal plants. France gets 77% of their energy needs from nuclear energy. Even South Korea ranks higher than the US. Despite this, the US is expected to possibly approve perhaps five nuclear plants by 2018- just approve, not build. Internationally, over 50 plants are expected to be approved, built or operational by 2018- 20 of them in China alone. To put it in perspective, France has 1 nuclear plant for every 1.1 million people while the ratio in the US is 1 plant for every 3 million people.

Most opposition is predicated in disinformation or unfounded safety concerns. Looking first at the cost concerns, they are not unique to the nuclear industry. Most of the increase in costs can be traced to two sources- regulatory/litigation and the price of commodities, mainly steel, copper and cement. Most of the increase in commodity prices, in turn, is due to government mandates. From 1971 to the present, these mandates have dictated a 41% increase in the amount of steel used, 27% more cement, 50% more piping, and 36% more copper wiring.

Uranium prices have remained fairly stable over time with most price increases related to mandates regarding the mining of uranium ore. While sitting on adequate reserves of uranium, the price in the US has risen faster than in other countries because of more mining mandates despite minimal deaths or accidents. Even so, other than Russia, the other top uranium reserves are in Australia, Canada and the Czech Republic- all fairly reliable US allies. Additionally, labor and construction costs have driven up the cost of nuclear plant construction. Another knock has been the cost of shutting down a plant to refuel the reactor (which is why most plants have two reactors). Today, the average down time of a reactor is 27 days due to technological advances whereas it was formerly over 90 days. Today, twenty utility companies are pursuing permits for thirty reactors. Obama cites this as proof that he is not anti-nuclear, but most of those permits are to replace existing reactors, not build more plants.

The other factor is that most utility companies have cost capitalization spending capped at about $9 billion. Since most plants cost a minimum of $5 billion, tying up more than half of that cap in nuclear plant construction scares investment. It creates a vicious financial cycle. Half the battle is decreasing the cost of construction.

The Oxford Economic Digest predicts that if the US were to build 30 new nuclear plants by 2030, we would create over 350,000 permanent high-paying jobs at zero cost to the government. For illustrative purposes, just building 16 plants in five states would create 123,700 jobs and generate $3.6 billion in state revenue. These jobs, incidentally, do not even account for the construction jobs that would be created along the way. Additionally, private industry would be responsible for site preparation and save the states the problem of building and improving roads thus saving tax payers even more money while generating tax revenue! It is disgusting that a country that pioneered the commercial use of nuclear power today shuns its use on a wider scale.

One area where the US holds a technological monopoly is with small modular reactors. They are smaller reactors in the range of 125 megawatts that can be adapted for upward capacity if the need arises. A 50 megawatt reactor can power 20,000 homes and can be constructed for about $50 million. To date, only two have been approved in the US- one in Alaska and one in Washington. However, Canada has approved several for the western part of that country. Most of the technological and manufacturing infrastructure exists right here in the US! They are ideal for remote areas since they do not require the building of costly and expansive transmission wires. Most importantly- something Obama will never let on- the technology was developed domestically with absolutely no government funding of any kind.

The main reason more plants are not in operation is the fact that the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) is ill-equipped to regulate these new technologies. In 2009, Obama’s own NRC admitted that the technology existed and was economically feasible. They also admitted that their regulations were geared almost exclusively towards the larger nuclear plants that generated 1,000 or more megawatts. Equally sorry is the fact that not a single forge for building reactors exists in the United States and we would have to rely on a Japanese import. There is a manufacturing sector job the United States can live with now.

Regulatory costs need to be lowered and that can be achieved by removing the $9 billion capitalization cap on utilities in order to spur investment. Secondly, the NRC needs to come into the 21st century. Some plants are held up in costly litigation for years even after receiving NRC approval. An example of a good regulation would be to limit the number of lawsuits and make them class action, then put a time limit on them. Look at a recent case out of New York. A utility wanted to build a plant on Long Island. Part of the approval process requires that the utility company have an evacuation plan which requires the coordination of federal, state, and local authorities within a 50-mile radius of the plant. One municipality took a political stance against the plant based on misinformation by the environmental community and refused to cooperate. To this date, the evacuation plans have not been finalized and there is no nuclear plant. From proposal to operation, it takes an average of 17 years for a nuclear plant. That is patently obscene.

If the United States and President Obama were serious about decreasing greenhouse gases and meeting our energy needs, then nuclear energy is the answer. If we tripled our reliance on nuclear power from 20% to 60%, it would be equivalent to taking 96% of all vehicles off the road in terms of greenhouse gas emissions. While we waste money on plug-in cars, the problem exists as to where that power originates. No less an environmentalist than James Lovelock, the founder of the Gaia Movement, has conceded that nuclear energy is the answer to decreasing greenhouse gases.